Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Guest post from Sheramy Bundrick: Van Gogh, Reader of Novels

Sheramy Bundrick, author of Sunflowers (Avon A, October) and proprietor of the blog Van Gogh's Chair, is stopping by today as part of her blog tour. I'll be posting a review of her debut historical novel tomorrow. Visit her website at http://www.sheramybundrick.com/. Welcome, Sheramy!

Van Gogh, Reader of Novels
By Sheramy Bundrick

Most people know Vincent van Gogh as a prolific artist — over eight hundred paintings in ten years’ time — and perhaps as a prolific letter writer. But he was an equally prolific reader, with an “irresistible passion for books” (as he put it) and a particular love for novels. Vincent read Dutch, French, and English fluently, and the authors’ names sprinkled through his correspondence form a who’s-who of nineteenth-century literature. In the letters, he offers recommendations and critique of books to his brother Theo, his sister Wilhelmina, and other family members and friends. We learn which books he thought consoling (Dickens’ Christmas stories and Shakespeare’s plays were a comfort in the asylum) and which inspiring (John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress). He praises French Naturalists like Émile Zola and Gustave Flaubert for their views on modern life; Dickens, George Eliot, and Harriet Beecher Stowe for their sense of social reform. He even read Jane Eyre and Shirley, novels of Charlotte Brontë then known under her pseudonym, Currer Bell.

For van Gogh, novels represented modernity. In many of his portraits and still-life paintings, he tucked a yellow-covered paperback novel or two to serve as symbols of contemporary thought. In Still Life with Bible and French Novel (1885), a well-worn copy of Zola’s La Joie de vivre sounds a note of rebellion against the massive Bible that had belonged to Vincent’s recently deceased father. The lovely Still Life with Almond Branch and Book (1888), a birthday gift for his sister Wilhelmina, sets a plump paperback against a flowering almond branch, both likely intended as emblems of new life and modern thinking. Van Gogh always wanted to paint a bookshop lit up at night, but never managed it; the closest he came was the pictured oil sketch, La Liseuse des romans (The Novel Reader) of autumn 1888, showing a very modern girl reading a very modern novel before a bookseller’s shelves.

It is worth highlighting Vincent’s attitude towards women and books. Not only did he admire (and condone) female authors like Stowe and Eliot, he also felt ladies should read whatever they pleased, a way of thinking not shared by most men of the day. Even his brother Theo preferred to shelter their sisters from controversial Naturalist novels — “forbidden fruit,” Theo called such books — while Vincent eagerly suggested Wilhelmina read this or that to expand her horizons. To “satisfy the need we all feel of being told the truth,” as he said. For van Gogh, novels as much as any other books could reveal truth, teach us things about ourselves and the world in which we live through the guise of a fictional story.

Sometimes I wonder how van Gogh would feel to be the subject of novels himself nowadays: Irving Stone’s Lust for Life, Adam Braver’s Crows Over the Wheatfield, Alyson Richman’s The Last Van Gogh, my own Sunflowers, to name a few. Would he be embarrassed at the attention? Secretly pleased? For my own part, I tried to write a book I thought he would like, with the sort of heroine he might admire. And I hope he’d be satisfied.


  1. I knew he was a prolific letter writer but didn't know he liked to read. Pretty cool! Sunflowers is on my list to read soon.

  2. Anonymous9:25 AM

    What a fascinating post. Van Gogh is so often portrayed (inaccurately, I suspect) as some kind of painting savant. I never even thought about his intellectual life, let alone pictured him as a lover of novels.

    Your points about the intellectual freedom embodied by novels, and Van Gogh's support of women's freedom of thought, gave me an entirely new picture of Van Gogh. You really made him come alive for me as a real person that I might have loved to know.

    Great post -- thanks!